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Celebrating mistakes is the first step in learning.

The following are short papers intended for faculty. The latest ideas are always listed first. The focus is on moving teaching toward being student centered, committed to continuous improvement, and having a systems approach.

January 28, 1999

Pursuing immature (not serious) students.
Implications of having a student focus

There is a market for students who are, to put it gently, "young and immature." Many colleges offer places where adolescents can "grow up." These colleges fall into two groups: (1) the Boot Camp Model, in which strict rules and regulations are used to create structure and discipline, and (2) the Party Model, in which students are given the freedom to party their hearts out in the hope that by the time they finish school, they will have gotten the partying out of their systems. I suppose in some cases a school combines the Boot Camp Model with the Party Model. (Or maybe partying is simply an escape valve at night for the discipline during the day.)

The Boot Camp Model is modeled after the military. I have heard many veterans say that the military provided the kind of structure they needed to reach maturity. Similarly, I have heard students who attended these kinds of colleges later say that, "School saved my life. If it hadn't been for the strict rules, I would have never survived to become an adult." For some students, a Boot Camp Model is the best experience they could ever have.

No one really admits to being a "Party" school, but there are several schools in the country (and in Maine) which are famous for their beer and their partying. At Michigan State last year, for instance, there were massive student protests because the university had the gall to say it did not want to see Tail Gate Parties including alcohol, and it did not want minors drinking. Many of the students who attend Michigan State and other party schools do so to a great extent because of the parties. They are "fun" places, at least for people who want to get drunk and be around other drunks.

It is common to hear alumni from such schools reminisce about the great times they had as students, which usually boils down to the great parties they had. I usually tell students and parents that it is much cheaper to let adolescents delay schooling until they have worked the parties out of their systems. Unfortunately, some people never really get the partying out of their systems. If they followed my advice, they wouldn't go to school until they were ready to retire. (At least that is the fear of some parents, who really don't want their kids to keep living with them for the rest of their lives.)

I bring up these differing perspectives of students because I think it is very difficult to try and be "all things to all people." The rule structures and experiences we provide are different if we are focused on "serious" students rather than being focused on "helping people grow up." Our campus will be fundamentally different if we start with the assumption that students are serious rather than immature.

Campuses centered on "helping students grow up."


Campuses centered on helping "serious" students.

Treat students like they are children.


Treat students like they are adults.
Give students few choices because they don't know what is best for them. Distribution
Give students lots of choices because they need to tailor their education to fit their needs and interests.

When we didn't close school in the last storm, I got a call from an irate parent who said that her son should not be driving in such bad weather, and if he got killed, it would all be my fault. I must admit I had to bite my tongue in order to keep myself from giving a sarcastic response. Clearly, this parent wanted a school for her son which would treat him as a child and not as a serious mature adult.

As a teacher, I want to teach serious students. My desire to pursue serious students is selfish to this extent. I understand that not everyone will agree with me, and that many teachers may in fact want us to help students "grow up" because for them that is where they get their greatest joy. We need to talk about this because when I say I envision us pursuing serious students, I am also saying, "I do not envision us as being the place where adolescents come to grow up."

Examples of immaturity: (Things students said to me this semester.)

(1) "It's not fair that you can fail me without giving me a warning letter."

(2) "It's not fair that teachers can use different rules. I wouldn't be failing this class in anyone else's class."

(3) "I had to miss class because I am on one of the sports teams. How was I supposed to know I couldn't make up the test?"

(4) "There's too much work in these classes. I have to work forty hours a week to pay for school. Your teachers give too much homework."

Examples of serious students: (Things student said to me this semester.)

(1) "I missed a quiz in order to attend my boy friend's funeral, but my teacher won't let people make up quizzes regardless of reasons for missing.

(2) "I feel like the teacher gets irritated with me when he can't answer my questions. I'm afraid to ask questions any longer."

December 17, 1998

Implications of having a student focus

Teachers design their classrooms differently when they expect serious students instead of not-serious students. The fundamental assumptions which teachers make about their students will lead to very different attendance and make-up policies, homework requirements, classroom design, and evaluation tools.

Assumptions when teaching is centered around not-serious students ----- Assumptions when teaching is centered around serious students
Students want to work the least possible amount. Motivation of students Students want to learn the most possible amount.
Students will lie and cheat if they can get away with it. Honesty of students Students are trustworthy.
Students can't think beyond the next party. Student willingness to sacrifice now for the future Students come to school because they want a better future.
You can't take seriously anything these people say. Student complaints about pace, teacher attitudes, and testing. These people's opinions count. We want their feedback.
They won't do their fair share. Student group work. Working together will make it so everyone learns more as a result.
These students are immature and should be treated like they are children. Student Maturity These students are mature and should be treated like they are adults.


If you center your classes around not-serious students, the serious students will feel like they are being treated disrespectfully. If you center your classes around serious students, then serious students will come in increasing numbers.

October 2, 1998

Implications of having a student focus

My answer to this question is simple: it depends on who the students are. If "not serious" students say that, "Ron stinks," then I am not particularly disturbed. We all know that we get some students who really need to live in Key West where they can party nightly and starve a little bit.

But if students are "serious" student, who are working hard, doing their best, then I have to take to heart their criticisms. We could no doubt argue for a long time about which student criticisms are appropriate and which aren't. Instead of trying to describe a general rule, I want to offer some criticisms I made when I was a "serious" student. For those of you who don't know me, I went to school twice as an economics major: the first time as an 18-year old who got drunk and partied, the second time as a 31-year old "non-traditional" student with a family, bills to pay, and struggling to make it.

These examples are real ones from my personal experiences as a student. They are all examples of what I see lacking when teachers fail to take a student focus.

1. I took a calculus class in which the instructor told us to memorize ten complex hyperbolic functions for a test. I objected that economists never use these kinds of functions, which are mostly used by engineers. I felt like it was a waste of time and memory to memorize them since whenever I might need one, I could look it up. The professor's response was, "If I allowed open book tests, all the students would get an 'A'." Being me, I refused to memorize the functions and blew my "A" in calculus.

Teachers are in fact the experts who have to decide what is necessary to memorize and what isn't. The problem is that some teachers don't tie their requiremenets to real student needs, but rather "make up" needs for no particular reason.

2. I had an economics instructor who would read aloud from her lecture notes every class. If students weren't making copious notes, she would literally stop and yell, "Take notes. Without notes, how am I supposed to know if you are listening?" This is a real story. What a Bozo. This teacher prompted me to write a letter to the University President. (Yes, I was one of those kinds of students.)

3. I took a computer science course in which we wrote twelve computer programs. The instructor never gave any of them back, and so we didn't know how we did until we got our grades at the end of the semester. Several people were shocked to discover they had failed. This teacher had a "research and lecture circuit" focus that placed students at the bottom of any priority list.

4. I took a graduate course in which there were two of us "older" students. I felt "older" then. Now I would love to feel that "old" again. This was a class in something called "optimization" which studies problem solving methods for complex systems. Everyone had taken a lot of math before getting into the course, but some of us had been out of school for a while and so were having to reawaken our brains as to the fine details of differentiation.

One of the younger students requested that the instructor explain one of the steps being used in the development of a series of equations. The professor who was a freshly minted Ph.D. snapped that we should know how to do the math before taking the course. My older friend-- who was as onery as me-- patiently explained to the professor that the reason we were students was that, "We still need to learn. If we knew all the answers, we wouldn't be here. The last thing we need is to be afraid to ask questions." This story had a happy ending beause this professor apologized and went back and explained the material again.

5. I took a history class in which a young student missed a week's worth of classes and didn't call in. She asked the instructor if she could take the test she missed, and he responded, "You know the rules. You miss the class, and you can't take the test." She burst into tears, he rolled his eyes in exasperation, and said, "Now what? Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?" By the time she got her story out, we discovered her father was dying, and she had been at his bedside. (How many of you would have believed her? How many of you would have dismissed her excuse as being inappropriate?) At any rate, it turned out her story was true, she didn't get to make up the test, and I felt like the guy was a real jerk.

6. Lastly I took an education course filled with football and hockey players. The course was a "methods" course for teaching social sciences. The students were wild and out of control. The instructor was timid and allowed anything to happen whatsoever. For me as a "serious" student, this class was a waste of time and money. The faculty member was not measuring her success by how well she met student needs. I have no idea if the "not serious" students would have said good things about this class, but I know that as a "serious" student, I was angry and wanted my money back.

I think it is important what "serious" students say about us. For me as a teacher, there is no one else I want to please. It is when I reach these hardworking people that I feel most successful as a teacher.

September 30, 1998

Implications of having a student focus

Students can be categorized in terms of motivation and competency. Motivated "serious" students are clearly most desirable from a teacher's perspective because such students will work hard, participate in class, and be as demanding of teachers as teachers are demanding of students. The opposite "Not serious" students are the root cause of teacher burn-out because they waste everyone's time. Teachers with too many such students start resorting to "disciplinary processes" such as required attendance, harsh make-up policies, added homework, etc. which in the long run antagonize the "serious" students who don't want to be treated as if they are irresponsible unmotivated children.

Some students fall in the middle of these two extremes. These "gray area" students will catch fire in the right kind of environment, but will lose interest and perhaps become antagonist in the wrong kind of environment. It is critical that these students be treated with respect. They resent being told some questions are "obvious" and shouldn't be asked. They resent teachers who arrogantly reject students who question perceived wisdom.

The ideal serious students are competent both in a prequisite knowledge sense and in a talent sense. These students can learn in spite of most teachers. While being very rewarding to teach, in reality these students would do well in any kind of classroom.

"Gray area" serious students can learn only when the teaching style fits their learning style. They will take more effort to teach and will challenge the best teachers. Because no one teaching method is best for all students, teachers need to master a variety of teaching methods for reaching out to these "gray area" students.

Sometimes competent "gray area" students take on the appearance of being "not serious" students because of how they are taught. It is easy for teachers to misperceive difficulties in learning as being primarily a motivation issue. Students want to be successful, but if they start believing they can't learn, then they will give up and appear to be "not-serious" students. For this reason, teachers should always be cautious about labeling students as being "not-serious."


Serious students

Gray Area

Not-Serious students


Ideal Students

Need the right environment

These students are the root cause of teacher burnout.

Gray Area

Need the right kinds of teaching

Most difficult students to reach

These students need to be somewhere else.

Not Competent

Need other choices

Need other choices

Should never have been accepted

September 12, 1998

The implications of "not being perfect"

Once imperfection is accepted as a reality, it means that as a teacher I accept the fact that grading systems make mistakes.

When students complain to me that a particular test short-changed them, I no longer automatically say, "Tough luck, kiddo" (actually I never said that), but I am more apt to listen to them. In my case, that means I always give the students a second chance. My favorite method is to give an oral test (usually over lunch.) Within five or ten minutes of questioning, both the student and I know whether the test had short-changed the student. By giving this re-testing opportunity, I discover which of my test questions are confusing and poorly written. I get a great opportunity to see first-hand how a student interprets my questions. Perhaps most significantly I get to talk to students about how they study for tests and how they know whether they are ready for a test or not.

Over time as I have become a better test-writer, the number of students asking for retesting has declined. One side effect I didn't expect from retesting is that student test anxiety has declined. I know that because they told me on their written feedback forms from class which I collect weekly.

Just because I think all grading systems make mistakes, that doesn't mean I think all grading systems are equal. Depending on how you write your questions, you can skew the kinds of misjudgements you might make. For instance:

  1. True or false. Richard Nixon resigned after he was impeached, but before he was tried in the Senate. The results of this question probably will give credit to some students who were nothing more than lucky guessers.

  2. Describe the Watergate Scandal and the crimes committed by Nixon and his White House. This question is skewed to make the mistake of "not giving credit" to students who really knew the answer, but didn't understand what exactly was wanted in the essay question.

Consciously take into account how your test questions will skew results. Then be humble and open to retesting students who believe that tests have under-evaluated their knowledge.

If you don't think your test system makes very many misjudgements, then ask yourself, "How do I know that?" When I first asked myself this question, I decided the only way to find out was to ask students, "Did the test accurately evaluate you?" Then when students said, "No," I retested them in order find out. Many times, I concluded my test results were correct. (Students usually agree at that point, by the way.) Many times, though, I concluded my initial results were wrong.

August 31, 1998

The implications of "not being perfect."

To improve, I need feedback on how I am doing. I need new ideas. I need to be able to experiment even though that will mean that sometimes my experiments will flop.

Ask yourself, "What would I like to get in the way of feedback from my students?" We all differ in what we think is useful. Your questions will be different than mine. These are some of the questions I have seen teachers ask of students. Some teachers change their questions from time to time. Some people ask questions once a class, once a week, once every two weeks, or whenever they are trying out new methods, books, materials, or whatever. There is no one "right" way. Be pragmatic and do what is best for you.

At the end of tests, you might ask:

You get the idea. Students are a resource that you can use to improve your teaching. What would you like to learn from them?

August 24, 1998

The implications of "not being perfect."

When I design my syllabus process, I won't be perfect. Implications:

These are some of the innovative things I have seen regarding syllabuses.

There is a basic rule I keep in mind when viewing my syllabus process:

The 25/48 Rule says that 48 hours after a presentation, people will remember only 25% of the details. God only knows how little they will remember several months later when it comes time to grade them.

If it isn't worth the time to make sure they understand the syllabus, then why bother giving a syllabus in the first place?